Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

How many projects should we work on at the same time? Which is better, one big one or lots of small ones?

One big dog and lots of small dogs

One

For the first time in years, possibly decades, I’m only working on one project for one client. It’s a big one, but it’s just one. There’s a small ‘but’ here which I’ll add to the end of my post. For now I’ll just focus on the rarity of working on a single project. This might seem perfectly normal for some freelancers, but it certainly isn’t typical for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been juggling writing jobs, sometimes enjoying the variety but often feeling overwhelmed by trying to keep too many things afloat. The main reason for taking on lots of work is that as a freelancer I’ve been afraid to turn down a work offer in case I don’t get asked again and my income dries up. Freelancing can be tough because you just don’t know what’s around the corner and you can never be 100% sure when you’ll get your next work.

I primarily classify projects that I work on into two kinds, big ones, and small ones. Both have their pros and cons.

Big projects

Big projects give me a chance to get stuck into something meaty and to have work planned out for months or years ahead. This offers peace of mind in terms of financial security. Another benefit is that the work becomes more systematic. By the time you get to unit three of a fifteen-unit course book, for example, you’ve worked out the best way of approaching everything, you’ve got your head around communication systems with editors and, all being well, the work just flows. The flip side of this is that there might be a danger of boredom setting in. But with the right kind of work this shouldn’t be an issue.

Small projects

Small projects can be very rewarding in that the work often feels more dynamic and if you take on several small projects the variety can spice up your working life. Small projects can take many forms. I just spent a moment brainstorming some of those I’ve been involved with over the past few years. I came up with this list but I could probably have made it twice as long with a bit more thinking time.

  • lesson plans
  • worksheets
  • guest blog posts
  • multiple choice questions for a digital product
  • differentiated activities to go with some existing video resources
  • scope and sequence documents
  • ‘How to’ pages for teachers
  • sample project pages for a primary course
  • a sample animation brief for a new course component  
  • crosswords for a Publisher’s puzzle page
  • tips for a Publisher’s website

Looking for a change

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I’d quite like to dedicate my time to doing fewer big projects and more small projects, and especially small-but-regular work. I decided to let people know by announcing my availability for such work on social media. I was blown away by the response and within a short time I’d taken on all kinds of interesting work. Some things were one-offs. Others were monthly or, in a couple of cases, a series of three or four.

Be careful what you wish for

At first it was exciting but then two things happened. First, I was offered work on a new, big project that was going to gobble up a large chunk of my available time. And second, I realised I’d miscalculated the amount of time I’d need to spend on doing several of the smaller jobs I’d taken on. I concluded that while variety was stimulating, it also meant spending a lot more time working. Not just writing but doing all the other jobs that being a freelancer involves. This is probably a post for another day but I’m talking about things like writing emails, organising and sharing folders, preparing invoices, etc.

Oops!

I have to admit that this miscalculation sent me into a bit of a turmoil. After all, I’d got exactly what I’d wished for. Yet here I was wondering how to turn the clocks back. In the end I completed all of the work I’d undertaken but sent apologetic emails explaining that my circumstances had changed and I would no longer be able to continue on those projects that were on-going. I suggested replacement writers where appropriate and felt good that at least I was helping colleagues find work.

Lessons learnt

On reflection, I should have known what was going to happen. Instead I let my rather naïve daydream of seeing myself as some kind of assignment-driven journalist flitting from scoop to scoop, detract from common sense. I won’t do that again in a hurry.

Busy bod

I said I’d come back to a small ‘but’ at the end of my post and here it is. While I’m only working on one project right now, I am engaged in other stuff. I’ve started writing some books which I plan to self-publish. They’ve been on the back burner for ages so if not now, when? This has been a dream for several years and would have remained a dream if I’d carried on doing all those small projects. I’ll be writing more about this soon as I’m trying to keep a journal of the process. I’m also doing other bits and bobs, preparing webinars and training, doing some volunteer work and doing a lot of professional development in various shapes and forms. So while I’m still a busy bod, a lot of what I’m doing feels more rewarding than ever. Oh, and if any commissioning editors are reading this, I’m always interested in new projects, big or small!

What about you?

The whole experience has got me thinking about a question: do you prefer to work on one big project or lots of smaller ones? And why? So I think I’ll do a survey and find out what other ELT freelancers think. It’s always interesting to share experiences about the way we work and why we make the choices we make.

I’d love to hear what you think about this, so please drop me a line.

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4 thoughts on “How many projects should we work on at the same time? Which is better, one big one or lots of small ones?”

  1. As you know, Kath, I’ve come up against the issue of small projects taking up much more (generally unpaid!) time than you expect too. At the moment, I’m in a really nice balance with one bigger (but not overwhelming) long-term project on-going and enough space in my schedule to take on smaller jobs that come up if and when I want to. Some months, I’ve taken on an odd shorty and enjoyed the variety, other months, I’ve felt that just ticking along with my regular work is enough. For me, it’s the best workflow balance I’ve had in years! Sadly, when the current long-term project comes to an end, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to find the same mix again, but at least it’s something to aim for.

    1. Hi Julie,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m always really inspired by your posts about how you work. From where I’m sitting, I’d say you do an amazing job at getting that balance, though of course, things do sometimes go pear-shaped. Not usually because of anything you or I do though. I hope you find something else to replace this big project. Is it worth putting out feelers now? To let people know when you’ll be freed up? Good luck!
      Kath

  2. Thanks for these posts Kath (and yours too Julie). It’s interesting to see how different freelancers manage their workload, as I figure out how to do that myself. I took on far too much in December, meaning that until the end of March I was very stressed by my workload. I’ve now got a much better idea of how much time I need to dedicate to different projects, and particularly of how much work there is with ‘onboarding’ / understanding the demands of different organisations, which is part of what I didn’t account for when saying yes. It sounds like the balance of ‘one big + space for a small or two’ is quite a good one to go for, if you can swing it!
    Sandy

    1. It’s a fascinating subject! I think it’s great that us freelancers are now more connected than ever so we can learn from each other – what to do and what not to do. Getting that perfect balance is key but probably the hardest thing of all. It’s because we are tempted to say yes to a lucrative or interesting piece of work but sometimes we really don’t have enough time for it. We live and learn … and re-learn.

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